As far back as I can remember, pinball has been at the edges of my life. It all starts with, and is mainly contributable to, my father. He grew up in a small town in Oklahoma; where the the public school was K-12 and graduated in a class of 10 students. One way he found to escape his mundane and isolated existence was pinball. Since his family wasn't well off and money was tight, he'd cherish every nickel, dime, or quarter that found its way into his hands. He soon discovered that in pinball, by figuring out the rules and scoring and through meticulous ball-handling, that he could play for hours on a machine; not to mention the free games and extra balls!
By the time I came around, the 80's had ushered in the arcade craze. Some of my earliest and fondest memories were of hours spent with my parents and thier friends at the arcade or bowling alley and the sights and sounds associated with it. "Hey Randy, you almost done over there?", people would ask. "Nope, still on ball one!", would be his reply; to the head-shaking disbelief of his friends.
The eighties and nineties were a rough time for the pinball industry as everyone around here knows. I remember noticing fewer and fewer machines around as my life moved on. But every once and a while, while on some roadtrip gas station stop or a random trip to the local bowling alley, there it would be: a pinball machine. I could always see the old man's intense blue eyes light up with a flare of recognition, a curiousity, and a subtle joy upon the discovery. "Wanna give it a try?", he'd ask. "OK", I'd reply. There was always something inherently special about these machines that could not be replicated by the far more common video games I played. There was truly an art to making the machine do what you needed it to; far more than merely having the appropriate button/joystick combo at the appropriate time. I'd always marvel at the way he was able, to my young eyes, to will the ball just where it needed to go; while all I could do was fumble at the flippers, thrashing about more or less unsucessfully.
As I grew older I noticed that my contemporaries were nowhere near as fascinated as I was by our random encouters with the silver ball. I was nowhere near proficient by anyone who play's standards, but I was always able to beat the pants off my friends. "Oh, there are rules?", I would often (and still do) hear. But everytime I found a machine I just had to play it!
I have to credit two things with my recent reintroduction and/or obsession with pinball. First, having a school age child will almost certainly land you in a Chuck E. Cheese at least once in your lifetime and I was a frequent flyer. One day on one of these outings I saw something I'd never seen before; a pinball machine at Chuck E. Cheese! I was sure it couldn't be a REAL machine. It had to be some kind of cheap, kiddie, ticket-dispensing, prize-type machine. But to my suprise and delight it was a brand new, full size, fully functioning Stern Pirates of the Carribean PINBALL machine! The best part was, as advertised, all games at Chuck E. Cheese are just one token! That means 25 cent plays on a new machine! Needless to say I racked up quite a bit of time on POTC. The second thing was the discovery of Farsight Studios' Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection. I was able to play some of Williams' greatest machines with some of the best physics of any pinball videogame I'd ever played. It also really delved into the rulesets and scoring of these games and broke them down step by step so a novice like me could better understand them. The best part was knowing these were real machines that I could possibly one day play; and I have!
Once I had my fill of POTC, I started checking out the other Chuck E. Cheeses in town to see what they had available. I'd found that most of them had POTC in them as well, but one did have a Shrek and another had a Roller Coaster Tycoon. Now I had variety, and now I needed more! Soon I was visiting places I thought might have a machine: movie theaters, pool halls, family fun centers, roller skating rinks, ice skating rinks, pizza joints, you name it. This all led to internet searches and the discovery of databases and forums to aid in my search. Once I started reading Pinside I had the confidence that I could own and maintain a machine of my own. This all culminated with my purchase of Taxi this summer; my first, but almost certainly not my last pinball machine!